The Great Double Catastrophe
Thousands have already died by the infection of Covid-19. 50 million or more died from the Spanish Flu. Another 50 million died in the Black Death in the 14th century. Plagues and infections (measles, malaria) have recurred throughout history and continue to devastate communities.
Not to mention locusts, and droughts and floods and fires. So many catastrophes. And the human ones. Wars, genocide (a term coined by Raphael Lemkin following his studies of the Armenian genocide.) A term applicable to many atrocities in the last century, and some scholars say to the British decimation of Tasmanian aboriginals.
So many catastrophes. But the one that outranks them all and gathers all of them up into itself is the crucifixion of the Saviour of the world. Here is human wickedness gathered together against the Lord himself and his appointed servant. Here is the Son himself, rejected, betrayed, abused and killed. This is the human race when it gets its hands on God.
All the evil that humans do to each other is represented here. Because this is the great and perfect human. But this human, the Lord Jesus has taken on himself not only the fierce and hostile evil of humans against himself. He has taken on their guilt and judgement.
He is bearing in his death the judgement of God on the human race. All the catastrophes are signs in advance of God’s judgement. Little foretastes of what is to come. But still partial and temporary. Still giving people time to change their mind and turn to God and seek pardon. The death of Jesus is a promise that the final judgement can be averted for those who trust his death as a death for them. Because his death was their judgement, their death.
But on the day of his death it did not look like that. It looked like the powers of evil had won. As it often feels when evil seems to overwhelm us in difficult times. It was, from one point of view, the greatest catastrophe ever.
But the second great catastrophe happened soon after. What Tolkein called a good catastrophe – a eucatastrophe. The miraculous twist to the story that brings a happy ending when all hope seemed to be lost. He says,
“The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality’. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation. To reject it leads either to sadness or to wrath.” (On Fairy Stories).
The present troubles ought to turn our minds back, not to the Spanish Flu, but to the humans race’s rejection of Jesus. And once our attention is there we can see that this death was not primarily about humans rejecting God (although that was part of it), but about God making it possible for humans to escape judgement and to become his friends. Indeed his children. It was, if you like, the averting of the ultimate catastrophe in favour of rebellious humans being drawn into the love and life of God himself.
Rebuke All Evil
When Peter’s mother-in-law had a coronavirus like “high fever” Jesus “rebuked the fever and it departed from her” (Luke 4:38-39). This language matches both the description of Jesus casting out demons (Luke 4:35, 41, 9:42) and his stilling the storm (Luke 8:24). The language of “departing” is translated as “release” in Christ’s synagogue sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:18). Those held captive by demons and illness and panicked by uncontrollable natural forces are being liberated by the irresistible authority of the Son of God. We all know that coronavirus, and any other disease, is no match for Jesus. Yet even amongst Christians, fear and anxiety remain over an uncertain future. What are we missing?
Firstly, a personal encounter with the unlimited power of the Holy Spirit. As the breath of God’s mouth, the Spirit created the world and holds it in being (Ps 33:6). It was the Spirit-wind (Ex 14:29) who divided the Red Sea enabling Israel to escape Egypt to the destruction of their enemies. Through taking Jesus to the cross the Spirit (Heb 9:14) cancelled our guilt and laid the foundation for the “destruction of him who has the power of death, the devil” (Heb 2:14-15) It was the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead (Rom 8:11) establishing and announcing the Lord’s triumph over death as the “last enemy” (1 Cor 15:26).
Secondly, a heart seized by the authority of the Word of God. This is the Word that created the world and sustains it with power (Heb 1:2-3). It is the Word who became flesh, died for our sins and ascended into glory (1 Tim 3:16). It is the Word who will return from Heaven subduing all rebels and pouring out the fierce wrath of God (Rev 19:13-15). This Word God has placed in our mouths (Rom 10:8-9; 1 Pet 4:10).
Anyone who keeps on being filled with the Spirit (Eph 5:18) and who speaks out divinely inspired biblically based words of rebuke against evil will not be possessed by panic or fear. As Donna testified to a family member worried about our health. “We don’t think we are immune, but we believe we are protected.” Protected from any final suffering. Jesus already has the victory over evil and will surely be glorified through this crisis. So, keep praying, keep rebuking the purposes of powers of evil and keep praising our all triumphant Lord.
The prophet Haggai saw a time when what looked like a disaster would come.
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In a little while I will once more shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land. I will shake all nations, and what is desired by all nations will come, and I will fill this house with glory,’ says the Lord Almighty. (Hag 2.6)
But it wasn’t going to end in disaster. He told of the coming of the “desire of the nations”. There was a lot of shaking of nations before Jesus came the first time. And there is a lot of shaking of the nations now – before he comes at last. Not that these these things should be seen as some kind of countdown to the end. Rather they are part of God’s ongoing warnings and judgments.
In the case of what is going on this week, we have a stark reminder of the vanity of imagining that we are in charge of things. Here is Jesus’ brother:
“Now listen, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.” Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, “If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. “ (Jam 4.13)
So many of our securities and hopes are being undermined. Not only our health but our wealth too. For many this is very scary. It has brought us to a place of great insecurity. Isn’t God good!
Knowing that we are insecure, and that our own organising is fragile and shaking, and in some cases destroyed, - that knowledge is a great gift. Because people who know they are in need can ask for help.
We can come to our senses and recognise (before it is to late) that God is the Lord. That Jesus is the ruler of the heavens and the earth. And we can turn to him. Change our mind about him. Submit our lives to him. Trust him with our lives, and ambitions, and hopes, and money and health, and death.
Are you worried, anxious. Unsure of how things will turn out. Agonising for friends or relatives who seem to be in more danger than you?
Listen to the Psalmist. Read and listen and pray.
This is Psalm 46 (NIV)
God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea,
3 though its waters roar and foam
and the mountains quake with their surging.
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.
5 God is within her, she will not fall;
God will help her at break of day.
6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall;
he lifts his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
8 Come and see what the Lord has done,
the desolations he has brought on the earth.
9 He makes wars cease
to the ends of the earth.
He breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the shields with fire.
10 He says, “Be still, and know that I am God;
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth.”
11 The Lord Almighty is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress.
We are a people of faith and hope because we serve a God who is good and faithful. And because the Desire of Nations has come.
Is Jesus the Lord of Heaven and Earth and Covid 19?
Is Jesus really the Lord of all the earth? Sometimes we think he might be. When the rains came after the fires many saw this as an act of God, an answer to prayer. But most of the January fires were started by lightning. Was this also an act of God?
For a long time there has been a form of Christianity that thinks that the world has been left to run its course without any involvement on the part of God. Many Christians think this is the case if we are talking about judgment, but not if we are talking about blessing or help. Many are very happy to call out to God for help.
God's people when they are threatened by their enemies do call out to God to stop the persecution, and to bless their enemies. They do good to them as they are able. But they also cry out for justice. Even unbelievers cry out for justice. Jesus warned his followers against seeking vengeance. Asking for justice was right. Vengeance, that is judgment, is God's job. Indeed without God's judgment there would be no ultimate justice.
But the scriptures from beginning to end describe God's judgment in two ways. One is the final judgement of every human being when Christ returns. As well there are many temporary judgments - such as the exiles or deportations of God's people to Assyria and Babylon.
In the Old Testament other calamities were linked with these temporary judgments - locust plagues for example. In the New Testament Jesus commented on two calamities that were in the news in his day (Luke 13): a building collapse and some religious murders. Some thought the people who died were being punished by God. Jesus corrected that idea. Not by saying that they were innocent. Rather that they were no different to those who weren't killed. And he warned his hearers that they too would perish unless they repented.
Paul says the wrath of God is being poured out now, in the present, (Rom 1.18ff) as he gives people up to the results of their own choices.
Lightning that starts bushfires, plagues, floods and pandemics, are all experiences in advance of the great judgement. In them God is not usually picking on anyone in particular, but he is reminding humans of worse to come and encouraging them to call out to him and repent, because he is not only just, he is also full of mercy and compassion.
If you are afraid of a pandemic you should be much more afraid of God's judgement and take the present crisis as the opportunity to ask God to take away your sin because of the death of Jesus.
Believing that Jesus is the Lord of heaven and earth, and is in control of everything that happens, is a much more comforting idea than to believe that all these calamities are a result of blind chance or some kind of impersonal karma.
Because - you can call out to Jesus. You can ask, implore, argue (remember Job?), and know that he hears, never forgets, loves and has compassion. And that he is the one – the only one - who has done the great deed that promises complete safety on the day of judgement. Not only that, but he is the only one who right now can fill your heart with his peace and surround you with his love.
Belonging to the Lord of all the earth means you need not fear the judgement day, or tomorrow.
Jesus’ Victory over the Great Enemy
The first Christians believed that the sphere between earth and heaven was ruled by demons (Eph 2:2) and that the Roman emperor was a “beast” (Rev 13) ultimately controlled by Satan. They lived continually on a war footing. Hence the exhortation, “Fight the good fight of the faith.” (1 Tim 6:12). Such attentiveness to spiritual conflict has always been part of Church life where the kingdom of God is growing.
Luther’s great hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, contains lines like these, “For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe; His craft and pow'r are great, and, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.” When severely tempted the Reformer shouted, “I am baptized! I continue to be baptized!” This wasn’t using baptism as a charm but enacting faith in dying with Christ in baptism (Rom 6:4). The Reformers accepted following Jesus means living daily on the battlefront. This truth has numerous implications.
Paul exhorts the Church to, “take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (Eph 6:16). This reminds me of the “Roman tortoise”, where soldiers interlock their shields to form a protective wall around and above them impervious to missiles. When the whole Church prays for the whole Church the schemes of the devil will always be exposed (Eph 6:11). Unconditional forgiveness appears in scripture as a precondition for such triumphs (Matt 6:12-13; 2 Cor 2:10-11). Is there anyone you can think of that you have not fully and finally forgiven? The complete victory of God is summed up in the expression, “the blood of the cross”, for blood brings forgiveness and cleansing (Matt 26:28; Heb 9:22).
Through Christ’s blood we have atonement, justification (Rom 3:25; 5:9), redemption (Eph 1:7), reconciliation (Col 1:20) and access to the holy places in heaven (Heb 10:19). From these places of intimacy with God and spiritual authority the devil has been “thrown down” once and for all (Rev 12:9-10). This realm is free from temptation, disease, conflict and every demonic torment, for it is the realm of the glorified Christ, the triumphant saints and the holy angels. Here are found the resources needed to enact on earth Jesus’ complete victory over the world, the flesh and the devil. Let us enter this realm by faith.